When you go to a physical therapist, you expect certain types of treatments – things like stretching, strength training, perhaps range of motion exercises. Patients, especially those with chronic joint or muscle pain, also might discover relief from a treatment called dry needling. Combined with other treatments, dry needling has shown to be very effective to remedy aches and pains.
What Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling is a medical treatment that uses very thin needles without any medication (a dry needle). Dry needling is based on a Western medical technique that involves deep palpation into muscle fibers, tendons, and ligaments and superficial palpation on the skin to locate trigger points. The trigger points are then treated with a gentle insertion of a needle into the area.
Dry needling may look like acupuncture, but it differs significantly because physical therapists use it to go directly at pain sources following evidence-based guidelines, whereas acupuncture alters the flow of Qi (or energy) along Chinese meridians.
"Dry needling can be utilized for numerous musculoskeletal, neurological, acute, and chronic issues," said Jason Hutchison, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Franciscan Health Mooresville who specializes in manual therapy, which includes dry needling and joint manipulation. "Speak with your therapist regarding dry needling as an appropriate treatment option."
Dry needling is used to treat pain and dysfunction caused by myofascial trigger points (MTrPs), tension in the muscle and fascia, and neural/physiological changes in the body. Patients of any age can benefit.
What Are Myofascial Trigger Points?
MTrPs can occur throughout the body in any dysfunctional joint or muscle group. MTrPs can form anywhere an injury has occurred or anywhere increased tension/stress occur. Patients may be unaware that they have MTrP. The needle allows the physical therapist to reach “deeper” than other treatment options. The dry needle technique has been shown to be as effective as cortisone injections and traditional physical therapy treatments alike.
What Does Dry Needling Feel Like?
Usually delivered in combination with other therapies, a dry needling treatment takes 2 to 5 minutes. During the treatment, physical therapists certified in integrated dry needling, gently insert tiny needles through the skin to identify the exact source of pain and trigger a muscle response – a twitch or spasm. That response relieves pressure in the muscle and initiates the healing process.
Franciscan physical therapist Jessica Gillespie, DPT, in Lafayette, Indiana, says sometimes the source of pain may be different from where it is being felt, called a referral pattern.
“We use dry needling to identify the source of the pain," she said. "The needle will elicit electrical and chemical changes that help the body heal.”
Dry needling has been shown to be as effective as cortisone treatments and traditional therapies to help reduce pain, encourage healing and enhance range of motion. It is among the safest of invasive techniques aside from causing some soreness for 24 to 48 hours after treatment.